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'Snow-munity' in the Blizzard of 2010

President Obama called our megablizzard "snow-mageddon," and maybe it was. But the storm also inspired an outpouring of "snow-munity."

Big snows always bring this out. People who would never think to pick up hitchhikers pull over. People who would never think to stick out a thumb bundle up and test their luck. My husband made it from the snowy suburbs to pick up our daughter downtown -- and back again -- thanks to the working Metro and the kindness of strangers with four-wheel drive.

But our technological era has also spawned "cyber-snow-munity." In my neighborhood, some of us had power; many others didn't. Some of us had phones, cable or Internet; many others didn't. Our Blackberries and iPhones brought us together.

The neighborhood listserv has been buzzing since the first flakes fell. Who's lost power? If you need someplace warm, we've got heat -- and extra beds. Tell the kids to watch out for the power lines! So-and-so down the street needs her walk shoveled. Someone's son has called from out of town; can someone please check on his elderly parents?

Does anyone know whether the plows have done the route from Pyle to River? Kenhowe's still blocked. Who's got a pair of cross-country skis and boots, size ten? Let's all get together and move the tree on Rannoch.

The Internet is an enormously efficient marketplace of information, never more than in an emergency. It is, perhaps, easier to ask for help, and maybe easier to give it, through the cool medium of cyberspace than face-to-face.

For all the moaning about our atomistic, bowling alone society, for all the hand-wringing over how we have all retreated to our individual technological cubbies, the blizzard of 2010 is a reminder: technology serves to cohere as well as to fracture.

By Ruth Marcus  | February 7, 2010; 3:54 PM ET
Categories:  Marcus  | Tags:  Ruth Marcus  
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Nice column. And so true. It's like Mayberry in our Capitol Hill neighborhood the past couple days. Love that pedestrians have ruled the road.

Carjacking was pointless.

Posted by: DagnyT | February 8, 2010 12:28 AM | Report abuse

But how do you communicate via Internet with someone whose Internet is down? How do you reach someone by "neighborhood listserv" if they have no electricity and their laptop battery has run out of juice?

This is not snark; I'm serious! Isn't it like saying, "If you didn't get this message, call me"?

Posted by: herzliebster | February 8, 2010 12:29 AM | Report abuse

But how do you communicate via Internet with someone whose Internet is down? How do you reach someone by "neighborhood listserv" if they have no electricity and their laptop battery has run out of juice?

This is not snark; I'm serious! Isn't it like saying, "If you didn't get this message, call me"?

Posted by: herzliebster | February 8, 2010 12:29 AM | Report abuse

Blackberries, Wi-fi, friends' computers.

No need to be off-line for long so long as someone around has access.

Posted by: DagnyT | February 8, 2010 12:35 AM | Report abuse

Down here in eastern NC where we got slowed to a near stop for only a day or two, visiting the grocery the day before was an interesting experience. The place was full of shoppers, but everyone was having a good time, talking to strangers and generally being nice to each other. We're almost never rude to each other, but for a day we had an unusual experience to share, and had fun doing it.

Posted by: sirach | February 8, 2010 5:31 AM | Report abuse

This snow has made me realize that I haven't paid enough attention to using e-technology for communicating with my neighbors, especially for checking in on each other (and on neighbors whose power may be out or who do not have Internet access) as well as to pass along information on who will dig out a car or on events or occurrences of general interest. Ruth: who set-up the listerv you wrote about and where is it hosted? Suggestions from others? Thanks! -- Marty

Posted by: Martin_in_Rockville | February 8, 2010 9:45 AM | Report abuse

Snow storms do bring out the best in people but sometimes barriers are not always breeched. Sometimes polite conversation does mask deeper divisions. For example, while neighbors helped each other, no one helped my immediate neighbor to the east nor myself. Don't get me wrong, people politely chatted but that was it. I helped my immediate neighbor clear their sidewalk and steps. They thanked me profusely. But no one helped uncover their car nor mine. They did help others while we were out there. This has been thte pattern in my small, western Maryland town since I moved here in 2003. There are some possiblereasons for this and I am merely speculating: My neighbors know I am gay and they do not like the couple living next to me because they are not so clean and had been known for hoarding dogs at one point. Across the way from me is the only African American family in the immediate area. I sometimes feel like I am the only one they talk to. An Indian American family also lives on the block. They once helped me out of the snow last year but do do not seem to talk to any one else. Again, no one is rude or mean to each other. No name calling. But there are times when people choose not to help out. It just happens in a small mountain town like mine.

Posted by: matthenry1 | February 8, 2010 9:46 AM | Report abuse

This is why it's good to have block parties and neighborhood gatherings. They help build community, so when you need help other people are there for you. Also, so when someone needs help, you can be the person to be there for them.

When we think of our ideal selves, we tend to think of ourselves as the people who're ready to offer help. At least many people are that way, it's altruism manifesting itself. Many people make that choice when they feel like they can.

Half the problem though is creating a venue & connections with others around you to do this. Many people in suburbs & urban places don't feel like they can take these things for granted. - So, the thing to do (in nicer weather) is host cook-outs and the like, right outside. Invite everyone, and chase after them a little bit to just show up. The payoff is huge. You make new friends, you can settle silly arguments in a friendly way, things like that.

With this much snow, well winter parties aren't a bad thing either.

Posted by: Nymous | February 8, 2010 12:17 PM | Report abuse

matthenry1, I am just speculating here, but...did you help any of them? Maybe they don't help you because you don't help them in return.
You're basically calling your neighbors racist, without knowing a thing about them. And I'm sure you, as a member of a minority group, would never want someone to judge or label another person without knowing a thing about them.

Posted by: DCinND | February 8, 2010 2:10 PM | Report abuse

It's true that we only helped other able-bodied neighbors who were already helping (us help the less able-bodied or older neighbors on the block). It's also true that nobody helped the renowned jerks of the block either, nor the able-bodied people who sat inside and didn't start until the rest of us had all been shoveling for 2-3 days and were beat.

It's an old truism that crises of any kind bring out the best in some and worst in others, and as long as the best is mostly prevailing we're ready to keep laboring for the neighborhood!

Posted by: NML_dc | February 8, 2010 3:31 PM | Report abuse

you're writing about this...the weather. We're doomed

Posted by: dudh | February 8, 2010 6:33 PM | Report abuse

New media may have something to do with it, but my experience this evening was about the old fashioned community of it all. The buses stopped running at 7 pm, so I hitch-hiked, which I had not done since I was a hippie in the 60s. A woman about my age picked me up in her very nice car and drove out of her way to get me closer to home. Then a young man from Ethiopia carried me out of his way to finish the job.

I must say, I was thinking of you, Ruth, during the 20 minutes before the woman picked me up. I doubted for a few moments. Oh me of little faith. But you were right.

There are still NEIGHBORS in the world. We are still a COMMUNITY.

Posted by: joixlarge | February 8, 2010 10:47 PM | Report abuse

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